Scrapy example: posts from OngoingWorlds

July 15, 2017

Scrapy is a software project for fetching structured data (think spreadsheets or databases) from any website. These are some notes for dummies and forgetful people like me.

Note: Some knowledge of Python, databases, HTML and CSS recommended.

Scrapy is a software framework that allows one to write spiders and other components, which then crawl a website for the data one is interested in. It is not a graphical, point-and-click application; some programming is required. However, Scrapy’s learning curve is not steep and the documentation is excellent. Scrapy is also free, open-source, and can be run on a number of services, or simply on ones computer.

For this example, I am going to scrape OngoingWorlds, a community of “play-by-email” (PBEM) roleplayers. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as these games are played through the web these days, at least on OngoingWorlds. Also called “interactive storytelling”, PBEM are roleplaying games where a number of people collaborate to tell a story by alternately posting (usually) a few paragraphs, each post from the view of (one of) their character(s) in the game. Because these games depend on people interacting without too much delay, I wanted to find one where the majority of posting happened during the evening in my timezone. This information does not appear on the OngoingWorlds website, but could be answered quite easily with a database of all posts. This is where Scrapy comes in.


The first step is of course to install it. Scrapy can be run using Python 2.7, 3.3 or newer. For this “crawl” I decided on Python 3.5. On Ubuntu 16.04 the commands to install everything were:
sudo apt install -y python3-pip libxml2-dev libxslt1-dev zlib1g-dev libffi-dev libssl-dev
pip3 install ipython scrapy

For other operating systems or in case of problems, there is an extensive installation guide. (Note: I did not make a virtual environment for my installation, but that would probably be a good idea and their guide recommends it.)

Project creation

There are several terms in Scrapy that may need some explanation:

  • A spider is the code that does most of the actual heavy-lifting, extracting the interesting data and links to follow from the pages’ HTML code.
  • An item is the data that makes up one set of extracted information. In this example, I want to scrape posts. Each overview page on OngoingWorlds lists up to 15 “post items”.
  • Once the spider has extracted data from a page and created an item from it, you probably want to do something with it. In my case I decided to store it in a simple database (Sqlite3). Scrapy feeds each extracted item through an item pipeline, a fancy word for the code that contains the logic about what to do with each item: in the pipeline, one could do further cleaning or validation on the extracted data, discard it (for example if duplicates were scraped), store it or otherwise process it.

While one could probably store the code of the spider(s), item(s) and item pipeline(s) as well as configuration all in one file, it is easier to have them in separate files. Scrapy has a handy feature to create some boilerplate (i.e. mostly blank) files, which make getting started quicker than having to create all of these files from scratch:
scrapy startproject ow

Defining the post data

For each post I wanted to store the following:

  • The unique ID of the post, to avoid accidentally scraping the same post twice.
  • The game’s ID, since each post belongs to exactly one game.
  • And of course the date/time of the post, to be able to create statistics about the most popular posting time per game.

Our new project has a file for item definitions, aptly called, where I placed my item definition:

class OwPost(scrapy.Item):
    id = scrapy.Field()
    game_id = scrapy.Field()
    timestamp = scrapy.Field()

Storing the extracted posts

Storing the posts in a database is done in an item pipeline. Using scrapy startproject already created the file Since I wanted to use the simple Sqlite3 database, I inserted the following line at the top of this file:
import sqlite3
I want to open a connection to my database when the spider starts running, and close it when the spider stops. In an item pipeline, one can define some code that runs at these times. I added the following method to the pipeline class to open the database connection at the start:

    def open_spider(self, spider):
        self.conn = sqlite3.connect("results.db")
        self.conn.execute("CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS post (id INT NOT NULL, game_id INT NOT NULL, timestamp DATETIME NOT NULL, UNIQUE(game_id, id))").close()

SQL is not really within the scope of this article, but this code simply creates a table with a column for each of the fields from the items, unless that table already exists in the database, like it would on subsequent runs of the spider.

And to close the connection at the end, I added this method to the pipeline created by Scrapy:

    def close_spider(self, spider):

The most important task of this file is to insert the scraped post into the database. This is done by adding by adding a bit of SQL code to the already created method process_item:

    def process_item(self, item, spider):
        self.conn.execute("INSERT OR IGNORE INTO post (id, game_id, timestamp) VALUES (?, ?, ?)",
                       (item["id"], item["game_id"], item["timestamp"])

        return item

This method is called once for each item extracted by the spider, and it simply inserts a new row in the database table. The “OR IGNORE” instructs Sqlite3 to ignore duplicate posts without an error.

Implementing the spider

The meat of the code goes into the file spiders/ I am going to use regular expressions to find the URLs that the spider should follow, so I added this at the top:
import re

My spider also needs to parse the post dates (which are in the format “Jul 15, 2017, 2:36pm”) into “real” dates (which are easier to store and compare), let’s use the datetime module for that:
from datetime import datetime

And another line for the top, so the spider can create the OwPost items:
from ow.items import OwPost

When I yet was unsure how I would implement the logic for following links, I wanted to make sure that Scrapy never follows links that point outside of OngoingWorlds, such as to Facebook. Spiders have a property allowed_domains, which I configured right below the auto-created name = ‘ow’:
allowed_domains = [

From browsing the website I knew that all the posts could be reached via links from a specific starting point, which can be configured using the start_urls property of the spider:

    start_urls = [

The spider has two main tasks:

  1. Extracting the items (structured data) from the pages’ HTML code
  2. Identifying further links that should be followed (i.e. also downloaded and parsed, in addition to the start_urls) ) and adding these to the crawl

To implement both of these tasks, the shell feature of Scrapy is extremely useful. Using the shell one can interactively try out various code for extracting the desired data from a page’s HTML code. To run the interactive shell I entered:
scrapy shell ""
Any Python code can be run from the shell, and the HTML from the downloaded page is available with the response variable.

After some experimentation I came up with the following method for my spider, which identifies the “interesting” links on the current page and instructs Scrapy to add them to its download queue. I suspect that there are easier ways to do this, but this worked for me:

    def collect_links(self, response):
        for url in response.xpath('//a/@href').extract():
            url = response.urljoin(url)

            # /games/page/NNNN
            if re.match(r"^http:\/\/www\.ongoingworlds\.com\/games\/page\/\d+$", url):
                yield scrapy.Request(url)

            # /games/NNNN
            if re.match(r"^http:\/\/www\.ongoingworlds\.com\/games\/\d+$", url):
                yield scrapy.Request(url + "/posts", callback=self.parse_posts)

            # /games/NNNN/posts/page/NNNN
            if re.match(r"^http:\/\/www\.ongoingworlds\.com\/games\/\d+\/posts\/page\/\d+", url):
                yield scrapy.Request(url, callback=self.parse_posts)

The code uses XPath to extract all link targets (<a href=”…”>). Because some of the links could be relative (not starting with the full domain name), the third line converts them to absolute URLs. The three if statements use regular expressions to match different types of links that I am interested in:

  1. Yielding a Request adds the link to Scrapy’s queue. The first “if” statement matches links to listings of games. These pages do not contain any posts themselves, but I need their content to find links to the actual games (and thus, listings of their posts). By not specifying a callback, Scrapy will default to parse these URLs with the method parse in the spider. I’ll define the contents of this method shortly.
  2. The second “if” matches links to actual games. From browsing OngoingWorlds manually, I know that the list of posts for each game can be reached by adding /posts to these URLs. I have added the callback parse_posts to the request so that I can extract posts from these pages.
  3. If a game has more than 15 posts, the older ones are separated onto further listing pages. The third “if” finds the URLs to these listing pages, with the same callback as before, since posts should be extracted here too.

The default callback is called parse and this method needs to exist, because it will be run for the start_urls and the listings of games. Since there is no data to scrape from these pages, this method simply delegates to the collect_links method defined above:

    def parse(self, response):
        """Used for pages that only contain links to follow, but no data to scrape"""
        yield from self.collect_links(response)

Two of the if statements above referred to the callback parse_posts. This method has the following code:

    def parse_posts(self, response):
        """Used to scrape data about posts"""

        # Extract game ID from URL. Should always exist because this parser is only used for matching URLs
        game_id = int(re.match(r"^http:\/\/www\.ongoingworlds\.com\/games\/(\d+)\/posts", response.url).groups()[0])

        ### Parse posts (post_id, timestamp)

        post_summary_selectors = response.css(".post-summary")

        if len(post_summary_selectors):
            for post_summary_selector in post_summary_selectors:
                post_id = None
                timestamp = None

                links = post_summary_selector.css("")
                if len(links):
                    link = links.extract_first()
                    post_id = int(re.match(r"^http:\/\/www\.ongoingworlds\.com\/games\/\d+\/posts\/(\d+)$",

                dates = post_summary_selector.css(".date::text")
                if len(dates):
                    date = dates.extract_first()
                    timestamp = datetime.strptime(date, "%b %d, %Y, %I:%M%p")

                if post_id and timestamp:
                    yield OwPost(game_id=game_id, id=post_id, timestamp=timestamp)
  "No post summaries found: %s" % (response.url, ))

        # Add further pages to scrape
        yield from self.collect_links(response)

Some notes about parse_posts:

  • Line 5 has a regular expression that extracts the game’s ID from the URL.
  • Line 9 identifies all the DIV elements which contain post summaries. Chrome’s developer console and Scrapy’s shell were useful for finding the right CSS selector for these.
  • To make debugging the spider easier, I added an if/else to output some information in case the page did not have any post summaries on it. This was expected as some games simply have not had any posts to them yet.
  • Two more CSS selectors extract the post ID and date/time from elements inside the post summaries.
  • If this extraction was successful, the method then yields (returns) this data, converted to an OwPost item.
  • Finally, I also want to collect further links to follow from the post listing pages.

Spider configuration

Scrapy has lots of configuration options, e.g. to limit the crawl rate (to avoid being banned), for logging, and so on. To enable my item pipeline, I simply had to uncomment this code in the automatically generated

    'ow.pipelines.OwPipeline': 300,

To avoid too much noisy output during the actual crawl, I added the following configuration at the bottom:


Starting the crawl

Now that all the code is in place, the scraper could be started with the following command (with “ow” being the name defined in
scrapy crawl ow

Because I wanted to run this from my laptop and did not want having to start over in case of e.g. connection issues, I used the “jobs” feature of Scrapy to be able to restart from the point of failure. For that you have to create an empty directory and tell scrapy to use it:

mkdir crawls
scrapy crawl ow -s JOBDIR=crawls/20170715

Summing up

After some time, Scrapy is finished and shows some statistics about the crawl:

2017-07-15 12:34:11 [scrapy] INFO: Crawled 6092 pages (at 79 pages/min), scraped 84004 items (at 1185 items/min)
2017-07-15 12:35:07 [scrapy] INFO: Closing spider (finished)
2017-07-15 12:35:07 [scrapy] INFO: Dumping Scrapy stats:
{'downloader/request_bytes': 2154032,
 'downloader/request_count': 6165,
 'downloader/request_method_count/GET': 6165,
 'downloader/response_bytes': 43682979,
 'downloader/response_count': 6165,
 'downloader/response_status_count/200': 6165,
 'dupefilter/filtered': 53515,
 'finish_reason': 'finished',
 'finish_time': datetime.datetime(2017, 7, 15, 10, 35, 7, 43800),
 'item_scraped_count': 85099,
 'log_count/INFO': 148,
 'memusage/max': 98533376,
 'memusage/startup': 50962432,
 'request_depth_max': 504,
 'response_received_count': 6165,
 'scheduler/dequeued': 6164,
 'scheduler/dequeued/disk': 6164,
 'scheduler/enqueued': 6164,
 'scheduler/enqueued/disk': 6164,
 'start_time': datetime.datetime(2017, 7, 15, 9, 46, 11, 54206)}
2017-07-15 12:35:07 [scrapy] INFO: Spider closed (finished)

And the post data is in the Sqlite3 database:

sqlite3 results.db "SELECT COUNT(*) FROM post"

There you have it, a simple web crawler that would have taken much longer to develop and run without Scrapy. Analyzing the collected posts might be an idea for another article. I hope this was useful to someone :)

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